Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Precious Life-Blood--or Dead Hand?

George Eliot (æt. 30, 1849/1850) by Louis-François d'Albert Durade

I have been home now for ten days, just about the time needed to reclaim and settle back into long-established patterns and habits. While I was in Paris this last time I particularly missed my morning swim, as the local and supremely convenient pool was for reasons no official could or at least would explain, closed until a “further notice” that never appeared. Finding and using one of many other municipal pools was a theoretical possibility; but I was not willing to pay the necessary price in time, travel, and above all in reconfiguring the whole shape of a workday to accommodate an ancillary desideratum. My father used to call such activity “building the house around the doorknob”—that is, making the greater cause subordinate to the lesser.

But there are doorknobs and doorknobs. I find myself at the earliest beginnings of a large project, a situation at once daunting and exhilarating. It is exhilarating because the fields of relevant inquiry open lush before me like the Great Plains at harvest time. In every direction I look I see the ripe grain practically begging to be gathered. It is daunting because I am far from sure I can pull it off. Yet more vexing is a hesitation yet more fundamental: should I try to pull it off?

Like most humanists of my generation I spend a few hours of every day sitting in a library surrounded by walls of books. I continue to think that the all-encompassing “electronic library” is largely hype, but that may just be another index of my increasing obsolescence. Though I often require the resources of large or specialized institutions, the library in which I most happily work is not surprisingly my own--modest of course, but carefully gathered, winnowed, and sculpted in accord with personal need, taste, and even (can I admit it?) aesthetic preference. Many of the scholarly books that form the physical cocoon in which I work are old, handsome, multi-volume sets of breath-taking erudition. All of them were at some point somebody’s “large project” into which untold hours of solitary work were poured. All of them are the products of a mode of industry known to a tiny guild but wholly foreign to the experience of the vast majority of humankind past and present. Most of them rest undisturbed on my shelves year after year. That actually is the fate of most “large projects.” And quite apart from the question of fate is the question of integrity of motive.

The cabinet of Dr. Faustus (by Rembrandt)


The bloguiste's lair (by Nikon Coolpix 4100)

Among the noblest statements in Milton’s Areopagitica is this: “A good book is the precious life-blood of the master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose for a life beyond.” That is inspiring, but doubts nag. What about the not quite so good books? What, God forbid, of the really terrible books?

My preliminary ruminations have sent me back to George Eliot's Middlemarch--one of a few special books I try to reread every decade or so. In an essay on Eliot Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Middlemarch as a “magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. I do not know the precise “imperfections” Woolf had in mind. For me the novel’s hugeness (800 pages), required by the lengthy development of subplots of questionable necessity to the major theme, is a difficulty. And it makes it hard for me to tell you, as I now do tell you, that your life will forever be the poorer without it. For is it ever a novel written for grown-ups! In fact you probably shouldn’t even try before, say, your thirtieth birthday.

The fifth book (i.e., long section) of Middlemarch is entitled “The Dead Hand,” and like so much else in this brilliant novel, the phrase reverberates with complex suggestion. In an earlier book the Rev. Edward Casaubon has learned that a serious cardiac condition, “fatty degeneration of the heart,” could at any moment claim his life, leaving unfinished the great work of scholarship in which he has invested many decades. “The Dead Hand” chronicles the emotional blackmail and manipulation he employs to attempt to wrest from his young wife Dorothea the promise that, should he die, she will continue the work and bring it to completion exactly along the lines he has dictated. The pattern of emotional coercion is paralleled by a legal coercion, for which the technical term is indeed mortmain (“dead hand”). As yet unbeknownst to his wife the jealous and petty-minded Casaubon has added a codicil to his will making the bequest of his substantial legacy to her contingent upon her not marrying in her widowhood the man she will in fact marry. Thus Casaubon seeks to control Dorothea from the grave, even as he has controlled her through the course of her constricted and increasingly unrewarding marriage.

The fifth book is primarily the story of Dorothea’s inner conflict. She is most reluctant to make the promise Casaubon so importunately seeks; for although she is powerfully moved by a sense of marital duty complicated by sentiments of affection and sympathy, she has little confidence in the scholarly project to which her husband has devoted his life. Indeed, she inwardly judges it to lack intellectual integrity. As every graduate student of English knows, Casaubon’s great work, unfinished and probably unfinishable, is called A Key to All Mythologies. This unwritten book, and what it represents, is also in a large and figurative sense a “dead hand”.

What is it? Casaubon’s proposed Key to All Mythologies is projected as a vast work of scholarship designed to defend and demonstrate the primacy of the Mosaic historiography of the Pentateuch in relation to all other surviving ancient Latin, Greek, and Semitic literary sources. Though we learn only bits and snatches of Casaubon’s method, it is clear that its two principal stress-bearing pillars are what we would today call linguistics and mythography. Casaubon will be concerned to demonstrate according to his linguistic science, and in particular the science of etymology, that all ancient cosmogonies eventually reveal a common source in the Hebrew of the Masoretic text. Here one assumption is that Hebrew was the original language, that spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In a similar fashion, larger narratives—such as, presumably, the myth of the Golden Age as found in Virgil and Ovid--must be distortions or distant reflexes of Pentateuch history. The purpose of Casaubon’s life work is the defense of the literal inerrancy of the Bible and the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch—a task that for thinking Christians had become most difficult by the 1830s (the time of the novel’s setting) and by 1870 (the time of its completion) impossible.

I spent several hours yesterday in the Rare Book Room of Firestone Library reading one of Casaubon’s intellectual models: Jacob Bryant (1715-1804), an Etonian and Cambridge don, author of an astonishing work entitled A New System, or an Analysis of Ancient Mythology—a huge, ornate Georgian flat tire obviously being reinvented for the early Victorian generation by Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon. In fact there is a dismissive allusion to it in Middlemarch itself (book ii, chapter 22). Will Ladislaw (Casaubon’s poor but brilliant cousin, who in the end marries his widow) alludes to “men like Bryant—men of the last century” whose books are as relevant to contemporary scriptural scholarship as the theories of Paracelsus are to modern chemistry. The article on Bryant in the Dictionary of National Biography is hardly less severe: “His research is remarkable, but he had no knowledge of oriental languages, and his system of etymology was puerile and misleading.”

Still the three fine, fat quarto volumes of his New System, bound in tree calf with its old gold stamping still bright and shining—how beautiful they look upon the shelf! So as I set out on my own next small embalming project, I wonder anxiously. Will it be “precious life-blood … treasured up on purpose for a life beyond” or merely a well preserved dead hand?