Monday, May 7, 2012

In which I read Middlemarch

In the middle of March, I fished Middlemarch out from under the bed, where it had been peacefully collecting sluts’ wool since before Christmas, put into the orange bag  (courtesy of its colour, impossible to leave behind anywhere by accident) and took off for China.  This was the easy part: harder, was fielding the questions. 

“You’re going where?  To do what?  Why?”  To the People’s Republic of China, to pick up a little boy and shepherd him through emigrating to the US, because –  

Because the pay-off of having a large family is that it can tick over by itself, without me, for a little while.  Because Pentimento dared to ask, and that’s an honour.  Because hitherto, I’ve lived hobbled by fear and caution; my worst sins have been of omission.  (Let’s, if we must, sin boldly, for once.)  Because I still feel treacherous towards my former church community, and I wanted to kick myself out of Paradise New Zealand, for a while.  Because my sister has received a diagnosis of cancer identical to that of our late aunt: life is short.  Because taking off suddenly for the unknown is good practice for dying.  

Nowhere on the list was a desire for pure tourism, a tiki-tour, a look-see, an OE, a tirotirohaere. “Du mußt dein Leben ändern,” says Rilke, in response to seeing the “archaic torso of Apollo”; “you must change your life.”  But I’m afraid of change; change is the last thing I ever want.  Home’s where life is, in the personal space. Life-changing art, life-changing events, can wash over me,  eventually, if they must, while I sally on with the Brownian motion of daily life.

All the same, I couldn’t help but see some sights. I saw a branch of the yellow Yangtze River, heard someone exclaim, “La-la-la-la-lei!” and saw people river-swimming with barrels tied to their backs.  (“The Story of Ping”!) I saw a piece of brocade that took a man five years of his life to make.  I saw three cities bearing the weight of history.  I saw multitudes of people living busy lives, and I left for the States having shed some xenophobia, and having tried chickens’ feet.  (They’re delicious!  Chewy!)

More than that, I found the Church is Catholic, that at Mass my English responses could join the Mandarin and Cantonese, that the Rosary group accepts temporary members at the drop of a hat, and that the Sign of the Cross is the most universal prayer of all.

But the great overarch of the experience was the sight of a transcendental father-son relationship springing into existence in an eye-blink.  Did you ever, as I did, read the New Testament and see adoption as faintly second-best, a faute-de-mieux, a concession?  Maybe you never have: I think this may be the Calvinist mistake, the toxic run-off from the forensic view of justification.  We Calvinists were too busy thinking of ourselves as criminals let off the hook by a clever legal dodge to think of ourselves as children adopted by God the Father.   Thank God, I know better now, having seen adoption in action.  It's not a lesser relationship.  I now know God, my Father, the Church, my Mother, and find brothers and sisters everywhere, even in China: it’s a heady experience for a former Protestant, orphaned by sola scriptura and left to scratch out a faith, alone.  I can sympathize if little Jude occasionally disbelieves in the glories of a family of his own.  I can hardly believe that I’m part of my new Catholic family, either.  Such riches.  Unfathomable.

Betweentimes, I read Middlemarch, in swathes and in snatches, in airports and hotel rooms and houses half a world apart. It’s possible that a Victorian classic has never been read before in such disparate locations and conditions.  Look, I liked Middlemarch, but I wished it hadn’t taken to page 250 for the plot to thicken.  Also, I wondered who George Eliot thought she was writing for.  Some of it - the natural history, the doctoring, the politics, the politics of doctoring - had the painfully over-researched quality of a Tom Wolfe work.  Furthermore, wherein does Middlemarch’s readership consist?  Does the same individual take equally lively interest in elaborate emotional interplay AND young scamps in strife AND Reform politics? 

When I think about this, I believe the natural place of Middlemarch is not so much the reading group as in the reading-aloud group. Such a group has scarcely existed since the Victorian extended family ceased to gather round a common hearth, taking out busywork of all sorts while thrusting an open book into the hands of the most gifted reader-aloud.   Nonetheless, one can see that in an extended family group, Middlemarch may come into its own.  There’s something there for everyone, old and young, male and female, and the langours of any single passage may find ready attention in one ear, whose eager interest buoys the flagging attention of the others present.   Fred Vincy’s doings for the teenaged boy, Dorothea’s for the blue-stocking daughter, politics and economics for the wonkish Darwin type.

Sadly, nothing short of a nuclear winter would assemble such a group again, for thirty-six hours of reading, and even if so, their pooled knowledge would be hard-pressed to explain all the references beached by the receding tide of memory. Middlemarch has slipped beyond the grasp of the average reader – its concerns require too much knowledge of the immediate past.  It has passed irretrievably into the province of the specialist.  Nothing, especially not margin notes, will save it.  Nothing will save Tom Wolfe, either, but I suspect his run will be much shorter.


BettyDuffy said...

Oh I loved this post. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed Middlemarch, all by myself.

But every time you write, I find much to chew on for days later. And this:

"taking off suddenly for the unknown is good practice for dying."

strikes me as terribly true.

Enbrethiliel said...


This is wonderful, Otepoti!

I especially love your analysis of the ideal audience for Middlemarch--a literal audience that can "read" as a group.

One of the papers I took in uni was a two-trimester course called "The Novel" which covered Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Howards End and A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad, and Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. And I enumerate them not to "title drop" but to give you the necessary context to process my professor's statement that if he were a censor in a totalitarian country and could ban only one of the books on the course, it would be Jane Eyre--because the book opens with an image of a solitary, isolated reader . . . and that kind of reader is the most dangerous individual of all.

It was obviously such a dramatic statement that I remember it eight years later. But it's not necessarily the last statement on the matter. I agree that solitary, isolated readers, inasmuch as they are also independent thinkers, can be very "dangerous" to anyone who requires uniformity of thought (whatever the orthodoxy); but now I wonder whether the real danger is the individual who also knows how to read with others.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 touches on this, when a character says that the government wanted porches removed from houses so that neighbours wouldn't have anywhere to sit and talk with each other.

Pentimento said...

I didn't read Middlemarch. But Otepoti, as you can see, is the best friend that anyone could ever want. And you never told me that you actually heard someone call "La-la-la-la-lei!"

Otepoti said...

Hi, Elizabeth,

"much to chew on for days later" - you're very kind. I also re-read your posts at the eponymous blog, as you might notice if you look at your visitor stats.

In fact, speaking of chewing, I'm still mulling over one point you made there, quite a while ago, vis-a-vis your little lads, that eating boogers may break the eucharistic fast.

Far from it for me, a convert of five minutes' standing, to go all St-Thomas-Aquinas-on-your-ASS, but isn't this the equivalent of swallowing your saliva or licking your own tears from your cheeks?

Because if it isn't, there are some lads around here who need to change their ways. First, we need to get it right with the secretions, then with the dispositions.

Not that my lads have anything in common with yours, no, not in the least. Yours like to pee off high places, while mine take it in turns to hold the cat-flap open for each other.


Otepoti said...


First, let me offer my sympathy for the your grief. I learned the Divine Mercy chaplet (Pentimento gave me a book!) and I prayed it for you and your brother, and will do so again tomorrow. I'm sorry I haven't got in contact with you before this.

" I wonder whether the real danger is the individual who also knows how to read with others."

Yes. Famously, among the number of these individuals, the Reformers, who together advanced their interpretations of Scripture against those of the Church.

Then they chopped the porches off their own houses, so they never noticed that it was time for the protest to be over.

That must have been a powerful course, Enbrethiliel. Who taught it?

In Christ

Otepoti said...

Back atcha, Pentimento.

Enbrethiliel said...


Otepoti: Thank you so much for your prayers. Feel free to e-mail me or comment on my blog any time!

My professor's name was David Norton. He may still be at Victoria University of Wellington. You could take the ferry to the North Island and celebrity stalk him! (Ah, and now I'm homesick for New Zealand again . . .)

Melanie B said...

I've been mulling this over--lots of time for that--while waiting for the leisure to reply. I just love the travelogue portions of your post. I shared with my Ping lovers your true life Ping adventures. Oh they love those moments. And what you say about the universality of the Catholic Church and about adoption.... But I truly don't have the attention span to address all the topics to the extent they deserve so I'll content myself to thinking further about Midddlemarch, which I finished near the beginning of Lent.

Like Enbrethiliel, this discussion take me back to my university days. I first read Middlemarch in a British novel survey course and one thing that seems to surface from the murky depths of my recollections was the idea (whose idea I no longer recall) of the novelist as a sort of encyclopedist, a generalist rather than a specialist, and that a novel strives to be a sort of little world. I'm thinking of the way Dante's Divine Comedy tries to encompass the whole world: heaven, hell and purgatory. The way that Moby Dick is as much a book about whales and ships and the life of the sea as it is about the human heart-- that great art should try to be all things to all men. My first take was the broad range of topics that it had less to do with Eliot's audience and more to do with her ambitions as a novelist, to try to encompass within the covers of her novel the entire world of an English village, which is quite an ambition. I love the image of the family gathered together to read and listen together with a little bit of everything for everyone. But I also think there was a certain Victorian ideal reader that Eliot is appealing to, the reader who has ambitions to encompass within his understanding all that can be known of human achievement. I think that the Victorian ideal was breadth of knowledge perhaps her ideal reader wasn't such an unknown type. Maybe too, it appeals to me-- in theory if not necessarily in practice-- because that was very much the ideal of my younger, college-aged self. We live very much in an age of specialization and I think the idea of the artist or of the reader as generalist has been lost. Which seems to contradict your final point about the novel demanding a specialist; but I think is just the other side of the coin. In our day it would require that one be a specialist in order to match what in Eliot's day was the scope of a generalist.

And now I'm not sure if I've made an ounce of sense but I must go ahead and publish because my time for lingering at the computer has most definitely expired.

Otepoti said...

Hi, Melanie,

Yes, actually, specialism vs. generalism was something Pentimento and I talked about, in connection with the New Zealand vs US approaches both to special education (the New Zealand approach is to mainstream to the hilt) and to economics - until fairly recently, NZ had a highly controlled economy, and we would always try to find a local solution to a problem, using local skills. (We're all globalized now, though.)

So I wholeheartedly agree with you that generalism is worth striving for, but with advancing years, I've become less sanguine that this can be achieved.

Sadly, I realize that in giving up trying to comprehend the fractal detail of things, my ability to appreciate the big picture has also taken a hit. More and more, I find myself content with, even grasping for, cliches and stereotypes.

Hey, I'm turning into an old fart.

Don't let this happen to you!

See you on Facebook. I'm the pile of mixed vegetables.


Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie, I find your observation that ours is an age of specialisation interesting, because it's so true--and yet the Millennial generation has the notorious reputation of trying everything at least once but not sticking with it long enough to make a difference or establish a living. It's very scattered, but not spacious. We're scattered in our professional lives, but narrower in our leisure, which seems to be the opposite of Eliot's Victorian ideal reader.

hopeinbrazil said...

I loved this wonderfully written post. You packed a lot of important ideas into a little space.