Friday, July 8, 2016

If You've Ever Read a Book

I'm very vocal about my disdain for Jane Austen. To quote myself, "Austen paints a naive and unrealistic picture of romance that is harmful to adopt and attempt to apply to real life." She encourages a worldview that is too idealistic and convenient to truly subscribe to, yet I see people every day who live their lives like it's a romance novel, and it kills me.

Don't worry. This blog post won't be about Jane Austen-- heaven forbid I have to write another essay about her. This blog post will be a shoutout to someone who followed a century behind Austen. I'm going to briefly dissect an excerpt from George Eliot's Adam Bede, in which Eliot discusses her moral duty as a novelist to describe the world as it is, not as she thinks it ought to be.

PS: If you've never read a novel within the realist genre, I highly recommend it.  They're crunchy, painful, and sympathetic reads.  As I mentioned in one of my recent posts, I love literature that invokes a feeling, and I think realist novels do it best.

PPS: If you want to read the chapter I'm referring to in its entirety, it's Chapter XVII, but I'll copy/paste everything you really need.

"Certainly I could, if I held it in the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be... But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

Right.  So she just comes right out and says it.  It is her duty to accurately describe reality.  She goes on to admit that a mirror image is imperfect and that so too will be her account, but she also swears to do her best.  Great, good for her, but who cares?  Like, why is that her "strongest effort"?  Isn't the beauty of writing your own story that you get to twist and tweak reality to be whatever you want it to be?

Not for Eliot.

"Perhaps you will say, 'Do improve the facts a little, then : make them more accordant with those correct views which it is our privilege to possess. The world is not just what we like ; do touch it up with a tasteful pencil, and make believe that it is not quite such a mixed, entangled affair. Let all people who hold unexceptionable opinions act unexceptionably. Let your most faulty characters always be on the wrong side and your virtuous ones on the right. Then we shall see at a glance whom we are to condemn, and whom we are to approve. Then we shall be able to admire, without the slightest disturbance of our prepossessions : we shall hate and despise with that true ruminant relish which belongs to undoubting confidence.' 

"... I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields-- on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice ; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

This is my favorite.  This is everything in the world.

You can just hear Eliot pleading with her audience.  She has seen the effects of a dishonest novel on its reader.  She truly believes that depicting a more perfect world than exists would make her readers "more likely to turn a harder, colder eye... on the real breathing men and women."  The people around you are not words on a page, they are human beings "who can be chilled by your indifference."  As someone who has chilled many with his indifference, this resonates with me.  If the Jane Austens of the world convince us that life should be the way it's depicted in a romance novel, where all trees are green and all ever-afters happy, we will soon grow jaded when we walk the streets of reality, or so Eliot claims.

(What I just did is called blame-shifting, and you shouldn't do it)

"Yes! thank God ; human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth : it does not wait for beauty-- it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it.

"All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children-- in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

In other words, do not anticipate beauty in reality as you see it in paintings.  Yes, such magnificence can and should be appreciated, "Let us cultivate it to the utmost," but more importantly, "let us love that other beauty... which lies... in the secret of deep human sympathy."  Do grieve over the brokenness of our world, but don't grow apathetic.  Don't "turn a harder, colder eye" on the people in your life.  

As Eliot puts it:

"There are few prophets in the world ; few sublimely beautiful women ; few heroes. I can't afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities ; I want a great deal of those feelings for my everyday fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know... more needful that my heart should swell with loving admiration at some trait of gentle goodness in the faulty people who sit at the same hearth with me... than at the deeds of heroes whom I shall never know except by hearsay, or at the sublimest abstract of all clerical graces that was ever conceived by an able novelist."
--George Eliot, Adam Bede

Don't save all of your grace for kings and queens, spend it on the people who go along beside you in the walk of life.  

Now I know what you're thinking: I just let George Eliot write a blog post for me, and that's cheating.  And yes I did.  But no it isn't.  Because I put her name all over it in slightly smaller print.

Don't live in agony of the world that you wish was; rather, work daily to make the changes you want to see, cultivate beauty of form, and recognize the beauty which takes root in "deep human sympathy."