The late philosopher Gilbert Ryle was fond of Jane Austen, so fond that he once likened Austen’s style of characterization to the technique of wine tasting. There is a joke about him that I quite like. When he was asked whether whether he ever read any novels, he replied, “Yes indeed. Each year all 6.”
As I get older, my library keeps getting smaller. I’ve taken Seneca’s counsel to heart: Lucilius, he writes, “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” During grad school, I imagine I owned around 400 books. At last count, I now have no more than 50. That number keeps getting smaller as I give more away, pass others on, and mail the rest to strangers living worlds apart. If I’m lucky and I work hard enough, I’ll have that number down to 5 before I die.
One of my master-thinkers is Jane Austen. It is Austen whom I love; it is to her that I return; Austen whose insights into and vision of human flourishing has won firm hold over me. So far, my 14-year tutelage with Austen, when it looks to be drawing to a close, seems to begin again, anew again like love. To me, then, it’s a pity that Austen has become so popular as a result of being so poorly read and so wantonly misread.
To begin with, she is misread by Janeites, a droll bunch of busybodies who conceive of Austen in celebrity terms and who fantasize about Pemberley and Darcy, Elizabeth and the other Jane. They ask each other, Well, who was Jane’s first, and possibly last, suitor? Don’t know? Or, What’s the name of the second cousin of the Earl of Suffolk? This really is too bad because amassing trivia and taking quizzes can only obscure Austen’s ethical vision of a good life. With time, trivia trivializes the artwork, the author, and us, rendering us less virtuous as a result. When it is not fantasy pure and simple, when it is not aimless brinkmanship or lonely camaraderie, Austen-philia is a very un-Austenian, undiscerning, and thus quite dangerous form of sentimentality: Elizabeth is cute and clever; Wickham cute but fake; Darcy stiff at first but cute at last; Austen a kind of confection to taste.
Hollywood’s makeover of the early novels–a second form of misreading–does Jane Austen no better. For it paints her delicate and carefully drawn portraits in the gaudiest, most grotesque gaucherie. True, Austen loves love but not clumsy romantic love. For Austen the author, love is the most genuine of friendships, not the stupid claim of “love, actually” or counterfactually or, like, whatever. No pouty-lipped Knightleys but the more stolid sort from Emma; none of the sloppy kisses of first adults, only the softer, more mature passions of once-knocked-about but now wholeheaded-and-hearted 40-somethings. Austen loves the virtues and wants us to love them just as much. Hollywood covets strumpets and costumes and figures of fun.
Bookishness may, however, be the gravest sin of all. Literary scholars–fools with degrees to prove it–turn Austen into an item on a syllabus (a “specimen,” Adorno once wrote) and then into a monograph. Bowing to antiquarianism, they conjecture and back up with block quotes and footnotes. Their readings follow the trendiest of passing fads: the deconstructing Austen is spelled, after a time, by the postcolonial Austen who, now careworn and weary, is tapped on the shoulder by the very queer Austen. The queer Austen, graciously, fucks herself sideways. Students, inculcated in esoterica and these byzantine ways, stoke their cynicism and their pride, and by these means stand apart from the author, uncommitted to anything save their arch lack of earnestness and churlish ingratitude. Apprentices in prodigality, they too yen to be fools with degrees. Calling what goes on in the college classroom “education” (compare L. educare: “bringing up, rearing well, leading forth”) is rather like saying that good parenting involves, in the main, writing good checks to multicultural summer camps and Christian rock conversion retreats.
But Austen isn’t dead provided we claim her as our own. To those who read her at night, to those who stay beside her during the day, to us for whom she is a friend, a moral guide, a master-thinker, to us in whom shame and humility, moral perception and justice have become second nature, she is alive as loved. If we’re lucky, we might come to resemble the older Marianne who, by the end of Sense and Sensibility, has learned that just as reason is passion’s companion so are mores morals’ feet and hands. For, Austen writes, “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.” Could never love by halves, only by wholes, in wholes, as whole, whole.
Do not beget trivia or love fools kindly but love only what is worthy of love. And in this spirit never love by halves.
Here are the first 2 paragraphs of my forthcoming essay, “Jane Austen’s Ethical Vision of Wholehearted Love.” (I’m still gnawing away at the prose.)
In her style, in her demeanor, and in her assessment of character, Jane Austen mocks garrulity, deplores hubris, and praises modesty and measure. As much in Sense and Sensibility as in Pride and Prejudice, she teaches us that before we can ever hope to achieve blessedness we must pass first through hubris, shame, humility, and gratitude. Our ignorance is stunning. We think we know ourselves but in reality we do not; we think we give liberally but often we offer little; too often we express our appraisals without reticence or demurral and too readily display a fondness for ourselves that we reserve only for those who are inclined to do the same. It is because our inconsistencies and our unacknowledged human frailties remain otherwise opaque to us that Austen resorts to irony, wit, and satire: the literary equivalents of shaking us from sleep. For not only do these point up our moral errors; they also, and by implication, issue important moral instructions.
Yet Austen’s critical posture is, I think, only the first light cast in her grander ethical vision. In the final pages of her novels, she goes much further. There, her stylistic coolness and her raised eyebrows give way to a soft warmth felt by friends and lovers, by friends for lovers, who, once separated by misperception and injustice, have by the end returned to each other. Having paid their dues and having learned to perceive themselves and their beloveds more clearly, they are now prepared to live blessedly together. Austen’s blessed vision of the good life is revealed, and so beautifully at that, in the embodiment of Marianne Brandon née Dashwood’s highest ethical ideal of “never lov[ing] by halves.”
Andrew Taggart, “On Ulysses’s Homecoming: Crying and Shivering”
Gilbert Ryle, “Jane Austen and the Moralists,” Collected Papers: Volume 1